Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mauritius: An Introduction

A tiny island in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is 2,000 kilometres from the African mainland.  It’s roughly half the size of the smallest US state, Rhode Island, and about 25% smaller than Luxembourg. With nearly 1.3 million people, it’s one of the ten most densely populated countries in the world.  Mauritius is part of the Mascarene Islands which also includes the slightly larger Reunion Island (a part of France) slightly to the west and the much smaller Rodrigues Island (a semi-autonomous part of Mauritius) much further to the east.

The original inhabitants of Mauritius were the now-extinct dodo birds.  Europeans were the first humans to settle Mauritius (despite Russia’s demands at the United Nations in 1966 for Britain to decolonize the islands and leave the indigenous population alone… silly Russia… always acting like a fool).  Ancient Arab maps do make note of the Mascarene Islands, but the Portuguese were the first Europeans to properly chart them.  Later on, the Dutch were the first to land and live on Mauritius.  The Dutch controlled Mauritius for 72 years in the 1600’s before abandoning the island.  It was too inhospitable for them.  The French came shortly thereafter and ruled for 95 years during the 1700’s, but the British decided they wanted it and attacked the French to gain control of the island in 1810.  The British ruled for 158 years before Mauritius was granted its independence.

Given its proximity to Madagascar and the African mainland, Mauritius is technically considered a part of Africa, though it hardly resembles Africa at all (except for all the South African chain restaurants).  Mauritius leads Africa in most international rankings devised by most international think tanks and the UN.  It’s has the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa, the highest Democracy Index ranking in Africa (beating the USA, Japan, France, and a bunch of other western countries too), and the highest Economic Freedom Index ranking (again beating the USA, UK, and nearly all of Europe too).

Mauritius still has its quirks though.

For example, the highway system in Mauritius consists of one highway (the island is small – how many do they need?)  The best part though, is that rather than on-ramps and off-ramps, there are roundabouts.  Try going through a roundabout at 110 km/hour. The public bus system is fucking hilarious and I will devote a whole blog post to this soon.  As a former British colony, English is the official language.  All schooling is conducted in English.  Parliament is conducted in English.  Street signs are all in English.  And anything to do with government is in English.  But English is not the main language of the island and virtually nobody speaks English as their native language.  That honour goes to:  French, or more specifically, a French Creole language.  As part of the treaty that handed over Mauritius from French to British control, the local population was allowed to keep their French language.  Everyone takes French in school.  The vast majority of tourists to Mauritius are French so all white tourists are immediately greeted with a “bonjour”.  They are surprised that I never took French in school.  But why take French when I can take something useful like Spanish?

Indeed, the French dominate the tourism market in Mauritius.  There are some Brits and some Germans who visit, along with South Africans, Chinese, and Indians, but the vast majority are French.  As an American and Australian, everyone was super surprised that I was there.  “How did you hear about Mauritius?”  Ummmm… it’s a country… That’s like asking visitors to New York “How did you hear about the United States?”  Or we can just back up.  “Have you ever heard of islands before?”

The island is demographically diverse, including by race and religion.  Roughly two-thirds of the population are Indian Mauritians descended from indentured labourers who came here to work after slavery was abolished.  About one-quarter are Creole – descendants of black slaves with a bit of European ancestry mixed in.  There’s a small but prominent Chinese Mauritian minority, as well as the white people – French Mauritians and South African expats.  Just under half of the population is Hindu, one-quarter is Catholic, and one-fifth is Muslim.  And they all, for the most part, get along pretty well.

The diversity of ethnic groups means that Mauritian cuisine has influences from India, China, Europe, and Africa.  The creole cuisine is big on rice, noodles, curries, and spices.  Because of the country’s island location, fish and seafood are the most popular meats.  The local street food is delicious – my favourites being faratas (flour-based flatbread rolled up and filled with veggie curry) and dholl puri (very similar to a farata but made with yellow split peas instead of just flour).  After that, the diversification sort of stops.  Aside from the Mauritian creole cuisine, I’ve determined there are four other types of cuisine available on the island:

1.  Indian food
2.  Chinese food
3.  South African chain restaurants
4.  Pizza

There’s not a single Mexican restaurant on the entire island.  I went to the one Thai restaurant but it didn’t taste very Thai.  I saw one Middle Eastern fast food outlet.  Were you looking for Greek food?  Awww I’m sorry!  Japanese food?  Awww I’m sorry!  Spanish food?  Awww I’m sorry!  American food?  Does McDonald’s count?  No?  Awww I’m sorry!  I was hungry for something different after three and a half weeks in Mauritius.

Some other quirks:  a big lagoon surrounds much of the island.  It makes the waves break away from the coast, keeping the beaches calm and enjoyable.  The only downside: the water surrounding the island is super shallow.  Like, SUPER shallow, as in, you can walk for several kilometres out to sea in some places.  It’s quite hard to have a proper swim, but quite cool that you can go so far from shore and be completely safe.

There’s also a lot of stray dogs in Mauritius, which was quite unpleasant.  It wasn’t as bad as Myanmar or Russia, but it was still a bit confronting.  Most of the dogs were quite tame and would follow you around for ages just hoping you’d throw some food their way.  I got followed quite a few times.  I don’t even like dogs but they just looked so sad that I couldn’t help but feel for them.

Despite the French influence, wine seems scarce.  Rum is the drink of choice, and with sugar one of the primary industries of the island, there’s tonnes of rum to be drunk.  Beer – particularly the fairly average local brand called Phoenix – is a close second place to rum.

Mauritius manages to pack a lot of activities into a small island.  Most tourists head to the fancy resorts and don’t see much else, but I am far too poor for that.  I stayed in small guesthouses and studio apartments, and drove around with a (crappy) rental car trying my best to cover every corner of the island.  I think I did a pretty good job.  I would tell you all about what I did, but this blog is already too long so I’ll save it for the next installment.  For now, you can peruse my first set of pictures linked below.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see the first set of photos of my time in Mauritius, follow this link:

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